Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gregory Boyle's "Tattoos on the Heart": Book Review

Listening to Fr. G's audiobook, as he recovers from leukemia treatments, I hear his affable but no-nonsense voice with a touch of strained effort, a human frailty. This enhances, movingly, his dry wit and carefully modulated rendering of such sentences as "Carmen was a dusty blonde, surely not the color God had given her," to introduce one of dozens of characters drawn from those men and women among whom he ministers. I've known about his work at Dolores Mission and Homeboy Industries, which is less than five miles from my home. But, even as I watched from the light rail line Homegirl Cafe being built near Chinatown and downtown L.A, a few years ago, I did not know the deeper tales.

A family friend of ours got her gang tattoos removed by the outreach efforts helmed by this author; while his apostolate to the "homies" remains controversial from some, his advocacy of compassion making us see the world from another perspective is challenging and convincing. I came from hearing the audiobook today on my commute (past the Mission, at least on the freeway closest by) to hear that a former colleague had her 17-year-old daughter shot by a 16-year-old gang member. Fr. Boyle might ask me, as my friend who's a grieving mother trying to find strength in her own faith, to consider the tragedy all around--not only the blinded girl who had straight-A's now with a bullet in her brain, but the boy who shot her as she sat in a car at night, wrong place, wrong time. Fr. G. notes being glib can be a danger. Yet, he patiently hears out those who suffer, no matter their culpability.

I find myself learning lessons from this book. I teach many students who grew up in similar neighborhoods and who have tried to leave the streets behind. Sharing the gist of some of the stories of redemption here, and endurance within adversity, enriches the power of simple parables. Whatever one's own belief, this is one inspirational book that avoids platitudes. Hafiz or Rumi is cited along with Dorothy Day or Al Sharpton; Fr. Boyle keeps alert to influences. Although I disagreed with a particular advocacy breaking one law which he asserted, he elicits respect, and he returns it richly. He holds, after all, the message of a higher power as paramount, and he fights injustice in his own diligent, understated way.
One quote sums up this Jesuit priest’s mission. “Jesus stood with the outcasts, until they were welcomed, or until he was crucified, whichever came first.”

Full of barrio lingo thrown in, this may not be the usual devotional reading for many, but be patient, and even if not every Spanish slang is translated, you get the flavor of East L.A. life as its diction is rendered--even more when read aloud. Fr. Boyle can capture the drawn-out cadences of those he "conversates" with, and hearing this can be funny and sad.

He asks us to see the narrow gate through which we are called to pass by Jesus as leading to salvation. It's not one that would shut even a sniper out, but which would open up to mercy, while (I trust) not surrendering justice. The gate, he says, is one that makes us focus, not which excludes us.

He does not romanticize the "crazy life," and he makes his Homeboy-employed charges work with their enemies as they learn to handle responsibility, accept orders, and learn to stop making excuses. Despite the broken hopes of many he ministers to and listens to, Fr. Boyle urges us to see how as in the Gospel the church needs to have its roof ripped open, so all can enter, and all can find restoring peace and abundant mercy from a "God greater than God," in the narrow sense too many have of the divine when they have been shut out from its love for so long. (Amazon US 3-8-12)

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